By Rob Levy
When your computer makes that funny noise, the one that sounds as though it's dying, does your digital life flash before your eyes? Do you suddenly realize how much you'll lose if your computer shuffles off its mortal coil? Imagine the wasted time just trying to redo all the stuff you've already done.
There's a solution, of course, and it's not revolutionary. It's called backing up your data. If you're not sure what that really means, or are a little confused about the options, take a look at this week's quick Tech Tip. We'll help you dip your toes in the waters, and get you ready to take the next step.
What is backing up, anyway?
Backing up your files simply means saving them somewhere other than your main computer. That's it. You've got them on your main computer, so you back them up by saving them somewhere else as well.
So I have two copies of everything?
Yep. Computers fail, even if you never drop your laptop or spill a pitcher of lemonade on the casing. Hard drives stop working, laptops get stolen, viruses eat your files. And all this is without talking about when something really terrible happens, like a fire or flood. And suddenly, poof! You're starting fresh.
Until that happens, you may not realize how much you lose when you lose your files. Sure, you know that you want to back up your Nobel Prize–winning novel. But think about all your Internet bookmarks!
Your doctoral thesis, of course. But don't forget your browser preferences and saved passwords. Think about your desktop picture, your screen saver, address book, emails, and your notes-to-self. And of course, there's all the music, plus photos from family vacations, birthday parties, and lunar eclipses. (Ok, there may not be that many of lunar eclipses, but you get the idea.)
In short, even if you don't think that you need to back up, you might find yourself a happier person post-computer-crash, if you do.
There are lots of ways to back up, but they all fall into two basic categories: Remote and Local.
Uploading your files to a server on the Web means that even if your home suffered a catastrophe like a flood or fire, your files would still be safe.
But backing up to the Web can be time-consuming, especially if you have a dial-up connection. You'll probably have to pay a small monthly fee for the storage space (though several sites offer 1GB or more of free storage as an incentive to order more). Also, if your connection is down (or the backup company's is down), then you'll be out of luck for a while.
But you can't beat remote backup for security and peace of mind. It's the best way to be sure that you won't lose your stuff.
There are lots of online sites for storing and backing up data. When you're searching for the right one, think about the amount you need to back up, and how much help you'll need doing it. Some companies provide software that makes it very easy to get started, while others might cost less, but provide less support.
Here are some of the most popular Web backup services:
Backing up locally usually means that you save your files to a CD, DVD, or external hard drive (one that you plug into your computer). If you're not worried about fire, flood, or theft, then local backup may be the best option, and is definitely the most convenient. You don't have to deal with a slow Internet connection or a monthly fee, and your files are always nearby.
But if your backups are local, then they're more likely to be lost in the same catastrophe that destroys your computer! So if you're backing up to DVDs or CDs, you should think about storing them in a fireproof safe. At the very least, you should store them in a different room from your computer.
You can just burn the CDs or DVDs with the files you want to protect. But you may want to look around for software to help automate your backups, or that make sure to save preferences you don't know how to find. And if you buy an external hard drive, consider getting one that comes with free backup software.
Download.com has a comprehensive list of backup software.
What not to back up
Now, if you have all the storage space in the world, you may as well back up everything on your whole computer. But if you've got limited storage space, you might want to prioritize a bit.
So what kinds of things can you afford NOT to back up?
First, anything that you already have a backup of. That may sound funny, but a lot of people have backups without knowing it. For example, those MP3 files of your favorite CDs. Do you still have the CDs themselves? You know, those old-fashioned things made of plastic. If so, then that's a backup. If your computer dies, you can always rip the CD again.
The same goes for software. Did your favorite game, or word processor, come on CD or DVD? If so, there's your backup. Just store those CDs and DVDs somewhere safe and you'll be ok.
Video files. Did you make a movie of your kids stuffing themselves with...stuffing? If so, save the DV tape that holds the original video. DV tapes aren't dirt-cheap, but as a backup, they're not bad. I usually edit the movie, then play the finished version back to my camera. That way, I have an edited version backed up onto my DV tape. Then, if something happens, I don't have to edit the whole movie again.
If you already have these kinds of backups, you can save a lot of space when you're backing up the rest of the stuff to CDs, DVDs, or online storage sites.
Many of us have come to rely on computers as part of our daily communication, entertainment, work, and play. If our computers melt down, it feels like something between an extreme nuisance and the end of the world. You can help push things more to the nuisance side by spending a few minutes to back up your files.
Whether you use DVDs or online storage, you'll feel a lot better the next time your computer makes that funny noise that sounds as though it's dying.